In Sickness And In Health

Anyone who is married or whoever has been to a wedding is familiar with the phrase “for better or for worse, in sickness and in health, ‘til death do us part.”  When we commit to one another, we do so voluntarily, understanding that the future, including our health and welfare, is unpredictable.  Marriage is the most sacred of commitments.

Probably after marriage and our families, the next most important thing to most Americans is our work.  After introducing ourselves to one another at a party or an event, the next question often is “So what do you do?”  According to statistics compiled by the Department of Labor, the average American with children at home under the age of 19 spends 8.8 hours per day engaged in work and work-related activities—more time than we actually spend with our families on days when we are at work.

So, if work is so important to us, why don’t we treat our jobs more like a marriage?  Why aren’t employers and employees committed to one another, both in sickness and in health?  The federal Family and Medical Leave Act does provide employees who work for employers with 50 or more employees up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave—but only in the event of a serious illness, which generally is defined as a medical condition requiring absence of three days or more, or a chronic condition.  The Maine Family Medical Leave Law is a little better, providing similar protection at employers with 15 or more employees.     

But what about the common cold?  Or if you need to stay home to care for a sick child?  In that case, most American workers are out of luck.  There is no right to take a sick day—paid or unpaid.  Which means most of us either come to work sick and expose our coworkers to our illnesses, or we have to take a vacation day—or worse yet we lie.

It isn’t like this everywhere.  The United States and Japan are the only two of twenty-two industrialized countries which do not provide paid short-term sick leave to their workers!  In 2007, Senator Kennedy introduced the Healthy Families Act seeking to catch up with rest of the free world; however, the bill, which would have provided for seven days of paid sick leave, never got off the ground. 

Tired of waiting for Congress to act, an increasing number of cities have passed their own legislation mandating that employers provide paid sick days to their employees.  San Francisco was the first to act in 2006, and since then a number of cities have followed suit, including Seattle, New York, Philadelphia, Milwaukee and just this month Portland, Oregon.  Just this past month, Connecticut became the first state to mandate paid sick leave.  These cities and states recognize that paid sick leave is actually good for business because a sick worker not only is not productive but also spreads disease through the workforce.

Most business owners in San Francisco have reported that the law has been a great success, and, despite the availability of paid sick time, a quarter of employees have not taken a single day while the average worker takes only three days.  Still, business interests elsewhere have opposed such laws.  In fact, the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a conservative legislative think tank, has fought back against such legislation by proposing legislation in a number of states which would preempt a city’s ability to enact paid sick leave; such an effort succeeded in Wisconsin, negating the Milwaukee ordinance. 

What is the likelihood Mainewill pass such a law?  In 2010, when Democrats controlled both houses of the Legislature and the governorship, such an effort failed.  Recently, however, the Portland Press Herald editorialized in favor of such a law

We are all proud of our Maine state motto.  Dirigo.  “I lead.”  While Connecticut beat us to the punch, it is not too late for Maine to be a leader in passing such ground breaking but common sense legislation.

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